The Reverend Canon Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon of Westminster
Sunday, 6th November 2005
Four hundred years ago yesterday evening, after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, soldiers were out on the streets of London, church bells were rung and bonfires were lit throughout the city. The city was in shock from the attempted assassination of the King James I and Queen Anne, Prince Henry and Prince Charles, the nobility, the bishops and the entire House of Commons. If the plot had succeeded all the windows behind me would have been blown out and the east end of the Abbey badly damaged. There would have been a grab for power by the leading Catholic conspirators, which would probably have failed. This would have been followed, in revulsion at the plot, by a massacre of Catholics. In the event, the conspirators were rounded up, tried and horribly executed, but, remarkably, there was no further anti-Catholic backlash. In the long-term, however, the Gunpowder Plot may well have ensured that England would never again be a Catholic country.
The plot was uncovered four hundred years ago yesterday in the very early morning, a few hours before before the State Opening of Parliament. A search party came across Guido Fawkes in the cellars of the House of Lords with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder, a large quantity of brushwood, a lantern and a fuse. Had Fawkes detonated the gunpowder the explosion would have been enormous. Actually, the gunpowder would probably not have gone off because it had been stored for too long. This was never put to the test, because Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, who ran an extremely efficient secret service under both Elizabeth and James I, knew of the plot well beforehand and was biding his time to catch the conspirators red-handed.
The background to the conspiracy lay in the disappointment of Catholics. They thought that James, who succeeded Elizabeth two years before, would show more toleration towards them. Under Elizabeth, Catholics were regarded as a politically dangerous minority. In 1570, the Pope declared Elizabeth to be a heretic, excommunicating her, and encouraging the Catholic faithful to depose her. In 1588, he gave his blessing to the Armada from Spain, which was intended to overthrow Elizabeth and install His Most Catholic Majesty Philip II of Spain as King of England. Throughout Elizabeth's reign bright young men had gone to the Continent to be trained in seminaries for the English mission. They had returned to England ready to minister in secret for a while, then die. These were not suicide-bombers, but all of this has an awful contemporary relevance.
When James came to the throne, he seemed to promise greater tolerance. Catholics hoped the penalties they suffered would be removed and life would get easier. However, James did not deliver - which caused a young Catholic nobleman, Robert Catesby, to try to hit back by complete decapitation of the regime and the obliteration of parliament - since it was from parliament that anti-Catholic legislation came. In his planning he drew in a number of aristocratic co-conspirators. Guy Fawkes, who had been a soldier in the Low Countries, and knew how to obtain and handle gunpowder, was a relatively minor figure.
Under interrogation, Fawkes at first revealed nothing. On November 6, the King gave permission for him to be tortured, writing, 'The gentler tortures are to be first used unto him "by degrees proceeding to the worst" and so God speed your good work'. The use of torture was actually against English common law. It had been expressly forbidden by the Magna Carta of 1215. Sir Edward Coke, Attorney General since 1594 and prosecutor in the trial of the conspirators, wrote, "There is no law to warrant tortures in this land." 1 However, under the Tudors the use of torture in cases of treason had been on the increase. It is probable that Fawkes was first hung by his manacled hands and then submitted to the rack. Some time on November 7 he broke and gave the names of his fellow-conspirators.
A swift roundup followed. Fawkes hoped he had gained time for the other conspirators to escape to the Continent, but they had not fled abroad. They had gone to ground in the Midlands, where they were relatively easily traced. In the fight that followed at Holbeach Hall in Staffordshire, several of the leaders, including Catesby, were killed. During the following months, as arrests continued, the Jesuits were implicated: Father Henry Garnet, the Jesuit superior, was arrested. He had known of the conspiracy and advised against it, but believed himself bound by the seal of the confessional not to reveal it to the authorities. Though the Jesuits were not the instigators of the plot, it suited the Government to portray them as such. The trial of the eight surviving conspirators began in Westminster Hall (where our choir sung three weeks ago) on 27 January 1606. All were found guilty of high treason. Four were publicly executed in a terrible manner on January 30 and four on January 31. Father Garnet was tried in London's Guildhall on March 28 and executed on 3 May.
There are striking parallels between these events and what is going on in Britain now. However, we should remember that nothing in recent terrorist activity, with the possible exception of the full plan for September 11 2001, has come anywhere near the boldness and comprehensive destructive potential of the Gunpowder Plot. We should also note that James was much too canny a ruler to instigate any backlash against Catholics after the Plot was discovered. There was no War Against Catholic Terror.
Alice Hogge's God's Secret Agents2 gives much fascinating background to the Gunpowder Plot. In an epilogue, drawing out the issues for the present day, she tells how in November 2001, Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor and prominent civil liberties lawyer, wrote an article in favour of 'torture warrants', mandates issued on a case-by-case basis permitting the use of torture on a detainee - exactly like the warrant for Guy Fawkes' torture. On 11 August 2004 the British Court of Appeal ruled that evidence extracted under torture in third countries was admissible as evidence, provided the UK Government had 'neither procured the torture nor connived at it'. We are now waiting for the decision of the Law Lords on this issue. What Hogge attacks is the utilitarianism, which, she says, now appears to have become 'our default moral position in every crisis.'
In doing so, she puts her finger on a lurch away from the unwavering commitment to human rights that has undergirded public moral discourse of the West since the Second World War. The greatest threat to our identity in the West at the moment is not terrorism as such but a shift towards pragmatic moral reasoning, in which everything - torture, detention without trial, shoot to kill, restriction of free speech, summary extradition - is permitted, all too often in response to media exaggeration. If we collude with this approach, we give ground to the terrorists, for that is what they preach and it is what they would practise if they had the power to do so.
There is another danger too, which is well-expressed by A.C. Grayling. It is that 'present day Islamist militancy backfires on the peaceful majority of Muslims living as immigrants in European countries, who come to be branded, as Elizabethan Catholics were, as potential traitors and insurgents by association. And the association begins to turn itself into reality through the toxicity of frustration and oppression it brews.'3
Grayling is an atheist, who believes the answer lies in the rejection of all religious belief. As a Christian, I believe it lies elsewhere. It lies in the daily struggle for mutual understanding, social justice and reconciliation. It lies in the building of alliances between believers and unbelievers to defend human rights. It lies in the conviction that all people are created in the image of God. It lies in the memory of Jesus Christ, who taught his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who plotted against them; and who, when he was tortured to death, cried out, 'Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.'